------------------------- U of MN Extension Service FO-01413-GO


Minimizing De-Icing Salt Injury to Trees

Gary R. Johnson and Ed Sucoff
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  2000  Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Symptoms of Salt Injury

Salt Injury Patterns for Metro Areas

Common Street and Landscape Trees
  • Tolerance to Spray Salt (chart)

Minimizing Salt Injury

More than 200,000 tons of de-icing salt are applied to state and municipal roads in Minnesota each winter. Some years, as much as 300,000 tons have been applied. De-icing salts (primarily sodium chloride) are helpful in providing dry, safe pavement for high-speed traffic. They are also used in large quantities within our urban areas to improve safety on streets, driveways, parking lots, and sidewalks. Despite the benefits, the extensive use of salt causes widespread damage. De-icing salt has caused the disfiguration of trees and shrubs along highways, and may have contributed to the decline and death of many city shade trees.

Injury occurs when salt is deposited by spray or drift on dormant stems and buds of deciduous woody plants, and on the stems, buds, and needles of evergreens. Injury may also occur when excessive amounts of salt accumulate in the root zone of these plants.

Both spray salt and soil salt can cause stem and foliage disfigurement, reduce growth, and even cause death.

Spray-salt damage is most evident along heavily traveled highways where high speed and high volume truck traffic have deposited salt spray on adjacent plants (first photo) . Damage is most severe within 60 feet of the road, although it can sometimes extend much farther (e.g., spray deposited on elevated highways).

Another source of plant injury occurs gradually, due to the buildup of high salt levels in the soil. This buildup occurs along city streets, driveways, and sidewalks when salt runoff washes into the soil and when salt is plowed and shoveled onto boulevards and lawns.

Toxic quantities of sodium and chloride can damage plants:

  1. by direct absorption into the roots, and

  2. by contributing to the deterioration of soil structure, thereby impeding soil drainage and root growth.

Overmaturity and drought can intensify the problem of high salt levels. For example, prolonged drought interacts with soil salt to increase damage to trees. Also, as trees age they lose their ability to tolerate soil- and salt-related stresses.

Control of infectious diseases is complicated by high salt levels in the soil. For example, the Dutch elm disease epidemic forced the removal of many elms along streets and boulevards. The young replacement trees were subjected to accumulated salt in their planting holes as well as the dangers of additional salt spray.

Salt-related damage to city and highway trees is costly; injury means increased maintenance expenses for pruning, fertilizing, and other extra care, as well as the expense of replacing removed trees.

Symptoms of Salt Injury

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The symptoms of salt injury are similar to injury caused by other stresses. When in doubt, suspected salt injury can be verified with soil and tissue analysis, as well as observation of the planting site location where the damage occurred.

Salt spray commonly causes bud death and twig dieback in deciduous plants. Subsequent shoot growth results in the development of "witches'-brooms" (tuft-like growths) from the basal section of branches facing the road ( figure 1 ). The symptoms become evident when growth resumes in the spring. In addition, salt-damaged deciduous trees and shrubs leaf out later in the spring.

Figure 1. "Witches'-brooms" is a common condition along roads because of spray salt injury.

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On conifers such as pines, spruces, and firs, salt spray causes moderate to extreme needle browning, beginning at the tips of needles and twigs facing the road. Browning usually is first evident in late February or early March and becomes more extensive through spring and summer.

Soil salt damage to deciduous species often becomes evident late in the summer following the growing season in which the salt damage occurred, or during periods of hot, dry weather. However, many years of high soil salt accumulation may pass before injury becomes apparent. The symptoms initially include an abnormal foliage color, needle tipburn, and marginal leaf burn progressing toward the mid-vein of affected leaves ( figure 2 ). Progressive symptoms may include a reduction in leaf, flower, and fruit size; premature fall coloration and defoliation; stunting; and a general decline in health.

Figure 2. Marginal leaf burn or "scorching" is often caused by high soil salt accumulation.

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Salt Injury Patterns for Metro Areas

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Common Street and Landscape Trees

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Column headings designate tolerance to spray saltdamage.
The symbol after the name of the plant indicates its tolerance to soil salt.
S=sensitive, I=intermediate, T=tolerant

Acer negundo (I)

Acer rubrum (I)
Red Maple

Acer saccharum (S)
Sugar Maple

Betula nigra (I)
River Birch

Carpinus caroliniana (S)
Blue Beech

Celtis occidentalis (I)

Crataegusspp. (S)

Juglans nigra (T)
Black Walnut

Juniperus virginiana (I)
Eastern Redcedar

Malusspp. (I)

*Ostrya virginiana (S)

Picea abies (S)
Norway Spruce

Picea glauca (S)
White Spruce

Pinus resinosa (S)
Norway Pine

Pinus strobus (S)
White Pine

Pinus sylvestris (I)
Scots Pine

Prunus serotina (T)
Black Cherry

Quercus alba (T)
White Oak

Quercus macrocarpa (I)
Bur Oak

Quercus palustris (S)
Eastern Pin Oak

Quercus rubra (T)
Northern Red Oak

Taxusspp. (S)

Thuja occidentalis (I)
American Arborvitae

Tilia americana (S)
American Linden

Tilia cordata (S)
Littleleaf Linden

Tsuga canadensis (S)
Canada Hemlock

Populus tremuloides (I)
Quaking Aspen

Acer saccharinum (S)
Silver Maple

*Betulaspp. (I)

Catalpa speciosa (I)
Northern Catalpa

Fraxinus pennsylvanica (I)
Green Ash

Juniperusspp. (I)

Pinus nigra (T)
Austrian Pine

Pinus ponderosa (I)
Ponderosa Pine

Populus deltoides (I)

Pseudotsuga menziesii (S)
Douglas Fir

Pyrusspp. (I)

Ulmus americana (I)
American Elm

*Aesculus glabra (T)
Ohio Buckeye

Aesculus hippocastanum (T)
Horse Chestnut

Amelanchierspp. (S)

Elaeagnus angustifolia (T)
Russian Olive

Fraxinus americana (T)
White Ash

*Ginkgo biloba (T)

Gleditsia triacanthos (T)
Honey Locust

Larix decidua (S)
European Larch

Picea glauca densata (T)
Black Hills Spruce

Picea pungens (S)
Colorado Spruce

Pinus banksiana (T)
Jack Pine

Populus alba (T)
White Poplar

Robinia pseudoacacia (T)
Black Locust

Salix alba tristis (I)
Golden Weeping Willow

Sorbusspp. (S)
Mountain Ash

*Syringa reticulata (T)
Japanese Tree Lilac
*Species marked with an asterisk show serious inconsistencies because the evaluations are based on a single parameter and insufficient data.

Salt-Tolerant Species

Although salt-tolerant species are available, there are relatively few of them. If only tolerant species are planted, there are few opportunities to match tree species with soil characteristics, and the risks of a single disease or insect pest destroying a high proportion of the trees are increased. No species is completely tolerant of salt injury; even salt-tolerant trees have limits on the amount of salt they can accept before they weaken and become vulnerable to other problems.

This table lists trees commonly used on streets and landscapes in Minnesota. Plants listed as intermediate or tolerant are recommended for areas where spray salt is common. Note that a species that tolerates spray salt will not necessarily tolerate soil salt.

Minimizing Salt Injury

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Use the following guidelines to minimize or possibly eliminate salt damage to trees and shrubs in urban areas.

Figure 3. A simple snow fence can provide effective protection for susceptible plants. DD1413-fig3.gif - 18.02 K


Gary R. Johnson is an extension educator and associate professor--urban and community forestry.

Ed Sucoff is a professor emeritus.

Department of Forest Resources.

Technical Advisor:

Paul Walvatne is a senior forester--landscape unit, Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Partial Funding was provided by:

The Minnesota Department of Transportation

University of MInnesota Extension Service [the Renewable Resources Extension (RREA) program of the University of Minnesota Extension Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture--Cooperative States Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES)]


Produced by Communication and Educational Technology Services, University of Minnesota Extension Service.

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  FO-01413-GO     Reviewed 1999 To Order